Much more than their live-action counterparts, animated movies are intrinsically tied to their studios, at least in the zeitgeist. We recognize animated films not by the names of the directors but by their studio and the latter's house style (Hayao Miyazaki may be the only exception, and even then his influence is evident all over every Studio Ghibli production). A Disney movie is going to be adorable and operate on a universal emotional level. A Dreamworks movie is going to have wisecracking characters with some adult humor, usually in the form of pop-culture references. A Laika movie is going to be (or at least appear to be) stop-motion animated, with a compelling story and likely some horror elements. And Aardman movies are recognizable by their Claymation aesthetics and gently dry English humor.
Why is this? Most likely, it's because it's hard to assign authorship to a single individual when it comes to animation. Certainly, every film - no matter how big or small - involves an entire crew of people and has no singular author. But with live-action films, it is easier to narrow down the idea of authorship into the director; this is the very foundation of auteur theory. With animation, on the other hand, the vast majority - almost always entirety - of the film consists of a made-up world that is "drawn." Animation is conspicuously the work of a large, collaborative group of animators, which in turn makes it harder to narrow down the authorship to a single person (further complicating matters, many animated films have multiple directors).
All of this is to say that Big Hero 6, the latest film from Disney Animation, is the product of even more collaboration than its studio predecessors. The film is the first fully-animated Marvel film since Disney acquired the comics giant's filmmaking branch, adapted from an obscure title that even hardcore fans of the brand had trouble recognizing. Of course, Disney has long been notorious for its corporate synergy, finding a way to turn movies into theme park attractions (and vice versa), fairy tales into merchandising opportunities, and above all, family-friendly entertainment into a license to print money. Yet more often than not, especially in the last few years, these films have had real heart to them, exploring fraught emotional ground through a universally-accessible story.
Big Hero 6 follows Hiro (voice of Ryan Potter), a brilliant young boy in the fictional futuristic metropolis of San Fransokyo who puts his mind toward building fighting robots. His older brother, Tadashi (voice of Daniel Henney), is a scientist at a local university, and he brings Hiro to his lab to show him the possibilities that await him if he goes to school. Hiro is immediately sold, and works hard to win his way into the school. When a tragedy befalls Tadashi, though, he abandons those plans, only to be moved by a new threat to the city that may have something to do with Tadashi and the discovery of his brother's inflatable healthcare robot, Baymax (voice of Scott Adsit).
More (and spoilers) after the jump.
Like Disney's recent hit Frozen, Big Hero 6 has a sibling bond forming the core of the story. However, in this film its a severed bond, as Tadashi's death hangs over the rest of the film. The result is a film that deals with the very heavy theme of grief, and explores it in a very matter-of-fact way. Hiro shuts down completely, hiding out in his room, barely tinkering with the inventions that used to keep him so entertained. It's only when he discovers Baymax that Hiro is able to begin coming out of his depression. Baymax functions as a reminder that Tadashi has not truly left him; Hiro will always have memories of his brother, which won't bring him back to life, but it will keep him alive in his mind.
Similarly, the film's villain is also stricken by grief: a failed experiment that cost him a loved one. The villain, a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask who controls the microbots that Hiro developed, is a frightening figure, with a legitimate menace that's sometimes lacking in Disney animated films. Yet even he ends up finding, if not redemption, then at least empathy for his loss. It's not exactly a problem, per se; if anything, it's nice to have a movie based on a Marvel property where the villain isn't a caricature. But it does make everything a bit too "nice." There isn't anything really evil in this world, just misunderstood.
Despite only being alive for the first 15 or so minutes, Tadashi's relationship with Hiro is easily the most well-developed in the film. Henney's and Potter's chemistry is genuinely affecting, making their bond feel all the more real and heartbreaking (it's also great to see Disney cast Asian actors for these roles). Yet when it comes time for Hiro to band together with Tadashi's colleagues at the university lab for the titular team-up, there's not nearly as much characterization. The others are entertaining, sure, but no one seems to occupy more than a "type:" Fred (T.J. Miller) is the comic relief, Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) is the tech expert, Go-Go (Jamie Chung) is the tough girl, and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is the girly-girl. Apart from Hiro and Tadashi, no other characters or their relationships are all that developed.
Well, except for one. Baymax is easily the breakout character, and not just because his cute factor makes him incredibly marketable. Adsit's vocal performance is spot-on, his cadence flat enough to be mechanical but warm enough to feel human. His role as a healthcare robot makes for plenty of gags, as does his almost childlike innocence. He also contributes significantly to the film's emotional core, serving as the tether between Hiro and Tadashi that allows the former to make sense of and better handle his grief. And, of course, he's adorable.
Overall, Big Hero 6 succeeds by delving into difficult emotional matter, and doing so with grace and without providing any easy platitudes. It's another win for Disney, and proof that even when the obvious goals are synergy and merchandising, the studio can still make a product that's also art. A-